Beauty Is Who You Are

I had never heard of Aaron Mankin when they handed him the microphone. He only spoke for a few minutes, but I was inspired to learn more. I found out he was a wounded Marine, his opinion on beauty, and the amazing story behind it.

Aaron Mankin

Cpl. Aaron Mankin addressing IAVA marchers before the NYC Veterans Day Parade 11.11.13

What I heard him say

I was standing with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) marchers this past Veterans Day in NYC as they waited to join the parade on 5th Avenue. Aaron Mankin was introduced as a leading voice of this generation of veterans. Since November 11th is about expressing gratitude, he spoke of that.

He said that when people would come up and thank him, he always felt awkward and uncomfortable. “What do I say? Hey…you’re welcome!” The semi-cheesy way he delivered the line “you’re welcome” made everyone laugh. He said that after a while he realized what his response should be. “What do I say now? Thank you for your support. Because all this…right here with each other, in our hometowns…all across the country, if we have this, we have all we need.”

As I stood in the cold, I found the warmth of his words uplifting and comforting. I loved his sense of humor. And I feel strongly that supporting each other, even with the smallest kindness, has tremendous power. So I was looking forward to finding out who he is and why he was a “leading voice.”

Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin

“On May 11th, 2005, Cpl. Mankin was wounded when the 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle he was traveling in rolled over an improvised explosive device and was propelled 10 feet in the air.

Four Marines died in the attack and 11 others were injured. In addition to the damage sustained to his throat and lungs from smoke inhalation, Cpl. Mankin suffered intense burns on over 25 percent of his body. His ears, nose and mouth were essentially gone and he lost two fingers on his right hand.”

This is the information about Cpl. Mankin at Operation Mend. He was their first patient two years after the attack. Operation Mend is a program at UCLA Medical Center where top plastic surgeons and reconstructive surgeons donate the their time and talents to vets with severe facial injuries and other medical issues.

After almost nine years, he’s had over 60 surgeries. When I found images of when he first got hurt, I was absolutely shocked. I did not recognize the man I saw speaking that day. I have to admit that looking at them made my eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure what surgery # the photos below are, but even the “before” photos are incredible progress. I am so grateful for Operation Mend and the work they do.

Part of the journey for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Part of the journey. for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Through it all Cpl. Mankin has continued to serve by helping other injured veterans to heal, to be a voice for them, and to inspire everyone around him to find their own ways to serve. He also helps spread the word about Operation Mend.

If you know of a veteran that could be helped by Operation Mend, please tell them about this organization. If you live in the LA area, you have the opportunity to be a Buddy Family. This program helps patients and their families spend some time beyond the hospital and hotel walls by joining host families for a home-cooked meal or an activity. If you wish to make a donation, you can do so at their site as well.

A beautiful truth

Cpl. Mankin actively avoided the mirror in this hospital room. When he finally did look, he didn’t recognize the man staring back and he says plainly, “I cried for a long time.” But then he made a choice. He said he didn’t want a stranger who dug a hole and planted a bomb to dictate who he was. He was still the same man inside. And that man chose to continue giving and serving with courage, kindness, and humor. He doesn’t avoid the mirror now. Because, “beauty is who you are, not how you look.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The Doctor Will See You Now*

If you’re a veteran, “now” means a 273-day to 2-yr wait to process a disability claim. I will never forget the night I got a deeper sense of what this means. It was a round-table discussion with the local VA (Veterans Affairs), “to tell them what you think.” I assumed my invitation was a mistake because I’m a civilian. But the host felt my perspective might add something. The event was in December 2012 but news reports in the past week made me relive it.

The group 

Attending this discussion was myself, a gentleman from the VA, and the following retired service members: 1 Marine, 1 Sailor, 1 Airman, and 2 Soldiers. Only one of the vets was female. We started going around the room sharing stories. Each one had a red-tape ordeal. Then it was the female vet’s turn, “No one here is going to like my story.” She told me to speak before her and she’d go last.

My 2 cents

“These delays can influence whether a family thrives or even survives.”

I told him about a family I had helped. The dad came home from Afghanistan with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He could not hold down a job without medication and therapy. While waiting for his claim, the family burned through their savings. Finally, his benefits kicked in. But by this point, they couldn’t afford the gas to get to the doctor’s appointments located more than an hour’s drive away. After they pawned their wedding rings, they approached one of the charities I volunteer with to ask for donations to pay for gas.

“After all their service and sacrifice, why are our veterans turning to people like me? They should not have to rely on the kindness of strangers.”  I wondered how many families were torn apart the by emotional, financial and physical stress.

I also told him I suspect he’ll be getting more vets than he thinks in the coming years. One of my troops was given sleeping pills for a few days after his buddy committed suicide. That’s it. Many troops fear that going to therapy will negatively impact their careers. I was told once, “If you’ve got to choose between two guys with equal credentials and one can handle things and one has been in therapy, who you gonna pick?” So if troops that need help don’t get it during their service, what kind of shape do you think they’ll be in coming out?

The female vet

She had been raped while deployed. Her attempts to get help through the VA were not positive experiences. So she walked away and never went back.

When she started speaking, I think we collectively held our breath for a moment. Her story was hard to hear. But she told it with grace and courage to this group of mostly men. Sometimes her voice or body trembled, but she had a fierce determination to not be defined by or ruled by this event or it’s aftermath.

As you would hope, the response from all was respectful, supportive and caring. The VA administrator was very moved and felt terrible that she was not able to get help at the VA. He clearly wanted to make things right.

Under the lights

The meeting ended and we all left. Outside, the female vet was waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change. Two of the other vets and myself were walking past and we all paused for a moment to chat about the meeting. I said to her, “You know what you did back there, right?” She shook her head no.

I told her, “You braved the pain to share your story with someone who has the power to change things. He’ll go back to the VA and tell others who can affect change as well. That means that any woman who has had this horrible experience will never go through what you did. She will be treated better. She will get what she needs to heal. And on behalf of those women and the families who love them, I thank you. Thank you for your courage.

We both got teary, she opened her arms and we hugged good-bye. Then we went our separate ways into that December night surrounded by the brightly colored lights and happy wishes of the holiday decorations all around us.

© Gina left the mall, 2013